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Was Beethoven Black? Probably Not, but These Unsung Composers Were

A music scholar examines the history of the decades-old theory, and what its permanence tells us about who is considered ‘canon’ in classical music

Debate over Beethoven's race sparked once again on Twitter last week. He is depicted here in a portrait by August Klober from 1818. (Photo by Universal History Archive / Getty Images)
smithsonianmag.com

An old question circulated on Twitter last week: Was Ludwig van Beethoven, the famous German composer, a black man?

In short: probably not. Many scholars over the years have refuted the theory, but the resurgent question serves as an opportunity to highlight the pressing discussion about inequality and systemic racism in classical music and its history, scholars say.

The social media conversation about Beethoven’s origins was sparked by a resurfaced 2015 article in The Concordian, the student-run publication for Concordia College, reports J’na Jefferson for The Root. But the theory that Beethoven was black has been around for decades. In 1990, musicologist and historian Dominique-René de Lerman, writing in the Black Music Research Journal, cited evidence of the claim being discussed as long ago as 1907. Historian Joel Augustus Rogers helped to popularize the theory in the 1940s, as Nicholas T. Rinehart reports in a 2013 article in the journal Transition.

Those who argue in favor of Beethoven’s black heritage point to contemporary accounts of his likeness that describe the composer in ways stereotypically associated with people of African descent. In just one example, a 1969 article in the Chicago Daily Defender cites Frau Fischer, an acquaintance of Beethoven’s, who described the composer as “Short, stocky, broad shoulders, short neck, round nose, blackish-brown complexion.”

Conventional scholarship dictates that Beethoven (1770-1827) was born to Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven, whose genealogy is Flemish. Those who dispute the composer's whiteness argue that his mother might have had an affair with a Spanish person with African ancestry, or that Beethoven’s Flemish ancestors mixed with people of African descent when their region was briefly under Spanish monarchical rule. Berbers from North Africa—known to Europeans at the time as “Moors”—have a long historical connection to Spain, de Lerma notes.

“This theory, however, is not based on genealogical studies of Beethoven’s past, which are available to the public. Rather, it is based on the assumption that one of Beethoven’s ancestors had a child out of wedlock,” writes the Beethoven Center at San José State University on its website. “[…] [I]t is important to note that no one called Beethoven black or a moor during his lifetime, and the Viennese were keenly aware both of Moors and of mulattos, such as George Bridgetower, the famous violinist who collaborated with Beethoven.”

George Bridgetower
A likeness of violinist George Bridgetower by Henry Edridge, circa 1790 (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Many scholars of black studies and musicology, meanwhile, have found no substantial evidence exists that Beethoven had African ancestry. In addition to de Lerma, musicologist Donald Macardle and novelist Darryl Pinckney have also disputed the claim, Rinehart notes.

But the argument has sticking power, in part because it’s a provocative one. German historian and musicologist Kira Thurman studies black musicians in Europe (and has a book on the subject coming out in 2021.) “I am less interested in if that question is true, and more interested in the history of it,” says Thurman in a phone interview. “It really comes out of a place in the 1930s when a lot of African American intellectuals and journalists and artists and musicologists were starting to really research and write books on the black past.”

“There’s a way in which white people, historically, have constantly denied black people any kind of association with genius,” she continues. “And in a lot of ways, there is no figure that we associate more with genius than Beethoven himself. The implication of the idea that Beethoven might be black was so powerful, was so exciting and so tantalizing, because it threatens to overturn how people have understood or talked about race and racial hierarchy in the United States and around the world.”

Thurman, a professor at the University of Michigan, hopped onto Twitter to share her perspective on the conversation in a thread, which went viral last week. She says she can’t speak to the question of Beethoven’s race. However, she suggested that those who focused on whether or not the composer was black are missing an important part of the picture: the number of black composers, including Bridgetower, Beethoven’s contemporary and friend, who have received relatively little attention in history and popular culture up to this point.

“So instead of asking the question, ‘Was Beethoven Black?’ ask ‘Why don’t I know anything about George Bridgetower?’” Thurman wrote in the thread. “I, frankly, don’t need any more debates about Beethoven’s blackness. But I do need people to play the music of Bridgetower. And others like him.”

“There is a long history of black musicians in Europe, performing and composing and concertizing,” Thurman added in the interview. “And they were doing amazing things. But oftentimes their stories are not told, or they have sort of been left to the wayside, because they don’t fit our narrative of classical music and talent.”

Bridgetower (c. 1780-1860), the son of a Caribbean father and a German mother, was a child prodigy who excelled at the violin, according to the University of Cambridge. Beethoven dedicated his “Sonata No. 9 in A major” to Bridgetower, although the two later had a falling out.

He numbers among the many black composers working around the time of Beethoven, including Joseph Bologne a.k.a. the Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799), a celebrated French composer; and the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), who wrote a trilogy of cantatas “The Song of Hiawatha,” based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

These composers were “hyper-visible” as part of a small black population working in Europe’s music scene at the time, says Thurman. “But then what happens in some ways is they get rendered invisible, because they don’t necessarily fit the narratives of what Europe is supposed to be like in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

The United States also has a long tradition of black classical composers, perhaps most famous among them being William Grant Still (1895-1978) and his “Afro-American Symphony,” one of the most popular American symphonies of all time. Other examples of African American contributions to classical music abound: Florence Price (1887-1953) made history as the first black female composer to have a symphony played by a major American orchestra, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed her “Symphony in E Minor” in 1933, per NPR. When William Levi Dawson’s (1899-1990) “Negro Folk Symphony” was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1934, it received a standing ovation—although it later fell into obscurity, as musicologist Gwynne Kuhner Brown writes in a 2012 article in Journal of the Society for American Music.

Today, the classical music landscape continues to be overwhelmingly white and male, classical musician Chi-chi Nwanoku wrote in a Guardian op-ed last year. A League of American Orchestras study of the field in 2014 found that less than 2 percent of musicians in American orchestras were African American, and only 4.3 percent of conductors were black.

Many organizations are working to remedy the imbalance: Nwanoku founded the Chineke! Foundation to create better opportunities for black composers in the United Kingdom and Europe, per the organization’s website. And in the United States, the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization supports young black and Latinx classical musicians.

Last week, many people have took advantage of Juneteenth celebrations to amplify the work of black composers and classical musicians. Garrett McQueen, host and producer for Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station, created a Juneteenth “musical celebration” highlighting black classical composers throughout the years.

And last Thursday, the Sphinx Virtuosi chamber orchestra released a 2-part performance of black British composer Philip Herbert’s “Elegy: In Memoriam,” a work created in honor of British teenager Stephen Lawrence who was murdered by a white gang in 1993. “We perform this work in remembrance of Stephen Lawrence, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others who have been taken from this world unjustly,” the group states in the video.

For Thurman, it’s these black musicians—past and present—that deserve the same attention we give to musicians like Beethoven. “Instead of spending our energy debating this issue, let’s take our energy and our efforts into lifting the treasure trove of black composers that we do have,” says Thurman. “Because they’re not getting enough time and attention as they are.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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